Time to promote regime change in Iran?
Richard Haass, the realist former Bush administration official who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, turned a few heads Friday when he came out in favor of a policy of "regime change" in Iran: I’ve changed my mind. The nuclear talks are going nowhere. The Iranians appear intent on developing the means to produce a ...
I’ve changed my mind. The nuclear talks are going nowhere. The Iranians appear intent on developing the means to produce a nuclear weapon; there is no other explanation for the secret uranium-enrichment facility discovered near the holy city of Qum. Fortunately, their nuclear program appears to have hit some technical snags, which puts off the need to decide whether to launch a preventive strike. Instead we should be focusing on another fact: Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago.
Haass goes on to lay out some measures that he argues will strengthen the opposition and put pressure on the clerical leadership, such as avoiding high-level meetings with Iranian officials, sanctioning the Revolutionary Guards, documenting and publicizing human rights abuses, and so on.
As regime change policies go, I’d rather have Haass’s than, say, John Bolton’s. And Haass is careful to say that "Iran’s opposition should be supported by Western governments, not led."
Still, I think we need to be realistic about what can be accomplished here. Some Iran observers, like Hooman Majd, emphasize that that the core of the green movement is pushing for civil rights, not revolution. And there still appear to be very few signs that the security services, the police, and the military are fracturing or hestitating to crack down. Meanwhile, there’s always the possibility that a compromise will defuse tensions.
Another reason to be skeptical of the prospects for regime change is that similar situations don’t seem to be good parallels. Iran has oil, and its economy is otherwise far less connected to the outside world than, say, Indonesia’s under Suharto, the Philippines’ under Marcos, or Chile’s under Pinchet. Yes, Iran has lots of young bloggers and university activists, but it doesn’t have a strong business class with a vested interest in the global economy. Instead, it’s basically a rentier state where the apparatus of repression, the Revolutionary Guards, also controls the commanding heights of the economy. And the Guards have shown no qualms about using extremely brutal means to keep down dissent.
One conceivable pathway to change is that the opposition ratchets up the pressure on the regime so far that the next presidential election really must be free and fair. The opposition would need to rally behind one candidate so that the conservatives can’t split the reformist vote. Let’s assume the regime allows the opposition to put up its preferred candidate — a big if — and even permits it to monitor polling stations as well as the vote count, and the opposition candidate wins. But even then, there’s an entire cleric-dominated superstructure above the presidency that would remain in the hands of the supreme leader. So even a new president wouldn’t necessarily mean fundamental change (remember Mohamad Khatami? He was elected with a 70 percent mandate). And we’d be talking about 2013 — which is a long ways off. Who knows where oil prices will be by then?
Another scenario is that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dies and a more moderate ayatollah, such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani or Yousef Sanei, takes his place and begins a top-down reform of the system. Khamenei is often rumored to be ailing, but he’s still only 70 years old. One could easily imagine him hanging on for another decade. And any successor will need to command the loyalty of the Guards, who will fight any attempt at fundamental change tooth and nail.
There’s always the possibility that the green movement will gain so much momentum that it becomes unstoppable, sweeping key leaders of the Guards, the paramilitary Basij, the military, and various security services into its ranks. This would be incredible to watch, but oil prices would need to collapse or inflation would need to reach painful heights to push enough ordinary, apolitical Iranians into the streets to make it happen.
In short, betting on regime change is a hope, not a plan.
Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
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